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From yellow ribbon bumper stickers to congressional speechifying, public support of the U.S. military has reached levels not seen since World War II. Fewer Americans than ever serve in uniform, yet our culture is steeped in military-themed TV shows, movies and video games. Some argue that uncritical patriotic fervor complicates substantive discussion of everything from defense spending to the role of the military in foreign policy. We explore a growing military-civilian divide, and how it shapes our thinking about American power.
- Aaron O'Connell Professor of History, US Naval Academy; Author, "Underdog: The Making of the Modern Marine Corp;" Lieutenant Colonel, Marine Corps Reserve
- James Dao Reporter, New York Times; Co-editor, "At War" Blog, NYTimes.com
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFewer Americans than ever before serve in uniform now but public support of the U.S. military has reached levels not seen since World War II, whether it's the ubiquitous yellow ribbon bumper stickers or congressional speech defying or the slew of military-theme TV shows, movies and video games. As the wars draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan and vetting begins of President Obama's choice for Secretary of Defense, our military is at a crossroads.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMajor decisions loom about spending cuts and the role of the military but some argue that the current climate of patriotic fervor complicates a clear-eyed discussion of critical issues like defense spending and the role of the military and foreign policy. Here to help us explore this is Aaron O'Connell. He's a professor of history of the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of the book "Underdog: The Making of the Modern Marine Corp." He's also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. Aaron O'Connell, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. AARON O'CONNELLThank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIIn his farewell address in 196 President Eisenhower famously invoked the dangers of the military industrial complex. In fact, we spend less today as a percent of our budget on defense than in Eisenhower's day. But you say the military nevertheless holds enormous sway in our country today. Can you talk a little bit about that?
O'CONNELLCertainly. Eisenhower's farewell address coined this famous term, the military industrial complex. And that is still invoked from time to time today but very few people understand Eisenhower's full argument. So, yes, he was warning about the profit mode of creeping into both foreign policy and defense spending. And that's usually how the term is used. But he was also warning about the dangers of permanent preparations for war. Eisenhower was very concerned with the effects of militarization, which is to say the effects of the military's power in our culture. And this is a part of the address that isn't really well reflected on and needs to be today.
NNAMDIAlso joining us from studios in New York at the New York Times is James Dao. He's a reporter with the Times and coeditor of the NYtimes.com blog "At War." Jim Dao, thank you for joining us.
MR. JAMES DAOThanks for having me.
NNAMDIJim, there's also been a change in society's attitude toward the military even as fewer and fewer Americans serve. The gap between civilians and the military seems to be manifesting itself, if you will, in all kinds of gestures, small and large. Can you talk a little bit about what you have observed?
DAOYes, and I think this is sort of the corollary to what Aaron has been writing about, which is this interesting paradox that as we have a smaller and smaller percentage of our population actually participating in the military, because it's a professional military -- there's no longer a draft -- the sort of respect that the military has held in has actually increased.
NNAMDII can't go to a professional sporting game, whether it's baseball, basketball or football without being asked to stand and applaud veterans who are among the spectators.
DAOYes, exactly. And it's fascinating because in some ways -- and Aaron might have a better perspective on this than I do -- but in some ways it seems sort of like a unique moment in our history. My sense is that after World War II when there were so many returning vets, it was not uncommon for there to be a vet in your family, for you to know a veteran next door. And while you might have considered that person a hero, they were also just the guy next door, the cousin Joe. And you didn't hold them in a sort of awe perhaps.
DAOAnd then in Vietnam you had this sort of opposite experience where veterans returned and were often viewed -- not universally but often viewed as either damaged or perhaps as war criminals or worse. And yet today you have -- veterans are such a small part of the population it seems like we often idealize them. And polls consistently show that the military and veteran population are among the most respected parts of our society.
NNAMDIJim, you point out that so few Americans serve today that there may be a certain amount of guilt that comes into play for many of us who have not served.
DAOYou know, I've never seen a poll on that matter and it's a bit of an anecdotal sort of observation on my part. But I think there's clearly a sense, at least among some part of the population, that yes there is a very small percentage of the population that we've asked to serve across more than a decade of war. And, you know, the sacrifices there have been obvious, not just on those service members who were either wounded or perhaps psychologically damaged from war, but also their families who put up with one, two, three, four, five deployments. And it's just we don't really even know the toll of that on families and children yet. I think scientists are just beginning to really research that.
DAOAnd so inevitably the rest of society looks at it and says, you know, I think without perhaps thinking too hard about it there's perhaps a bit of unconscious guilt about the fact that so few of us actually participate in that.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us we're talking about the military in American culture with James Dao. He's a reporter with the New York Times and coeditor of the NYtimes.com blog "At War." Joining us in our Washington studio is Aaron O'Connell. He's a professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of "Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corp." He's also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.
NNAMDIAaron O'Connell, you point out that as we talk about the debt ceiling and the threat of sequestration, it's clear that the military is now the third rail in American politics. Support for our troops has become something of an inoculation against criticism, criticism of spending, of policy. Can you talk about that?
O'CONNELLYes. I think that really is a very serious problem. Obviously there's nothing wrong with appreciating the armed services and showing respect for the armed services and thanking veterans for their service. But there needs to be a separation between that and the appropriation of patriotic narratives or narratives about the military for other purposes. And that's really what's been going on in our society over the last decade as different interests, private interests, other public interests, even NGOs have been appropriating narratives of patriotism and narratives of service for their own gain.
O'CONNELLAnd so that's what's going on in the sequestration pike. Politicians who are fighting over political matters and thinking first and foremost of their districts and also their political parties are turning the argument over defense spending and -- rather federal spending overall into an argument about supporting the troops. And this is really ridiculous, quite honestly because even the sequestration agreement that was first put in place had protections for military pay. They took cutting funds to military pay off the table at the outset. And yet it's still such a powerful narrative in our society that lawmakers can say if you dare touch defense you aren't supporting the troops.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. Do you think the way we view the military has changed over the past decade or so? What effect do you think it has had, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. You're saying that this rhetoric about supporting our troops has made it difficult to have any substantive discussion about cuts to the defense budget have made it difficult to have any, what you call, healthy criticism of the military?
O'CONNELLI think so. Let me give you one example, I think a particularly ridiculous one. This past summer there was an extensive debate in Congress over the National Defense Authorization Act, the budget for the military. Now, one would think that with a budget on the table of $633 billion there'd be a lot of smart things to argue over. But one of the biggest arguments was over military support to NASCAR. And what this is is $72 million, a drop in the bucket of the military budget, but still $72 million is given each year to sporting events, to NASCAR, to bass fishing. And the Marine Corps gives money to the ultimate fighting championship, all in the name of -- supposedly in the name of recruiting.
O'CONNELLHowever, the military's found that this money doesn't really serve very much purpose, that of the thousands of people who are contacted over the course of a big NASCAR event, 20 that contacted the military were qualified to enter the service and zero enlisted. So a fight broke out with some congressmen saying, let's cut this $72 million. It doesn't work. Guess what? It's still in the budget today. And why? Because politicians, mostly from North Carolina where the Charlotte Motor Speedway is said, this is good money. This is good spending. This is helping our military.
O'CONNELLAnd it is really just quite a ridiculous argument that taxpayer dollars should be given to put military recruiting advertisements on Dale Earnhardt, Junior's car or for bass fishing or for the ultimate fighting championship. But if you try to attack it then people will use the narratives of the military to oppose it.
NNAMDIJim Dao, we've heard one specific example. But given how Congress approaches spending how does it affect discussions of what the military actually does need?
DAOWell -- and that is the big question. The Pentagon itself tries to thrush out each year because it's not axiomatic that all of the military leaders in the Pentagon itself want as much as Congress tries to give them. There's been (word?) battles over the years where generals and admirals have said, we don't really need that particular project but Congress -- members of Congress will push for it anyway because that thing is built in their district and it's great for jobs. So that's one of the ways in which the debate over the budget gets extremely distorted.
NNAMDIDwight Eisenhower, Aaron, understood the tradeoff between guns and butter. Would you say that that's something we hear a lot about today, that tradeoff?
O'CONNELLI think it is in the news. I think we do discuss, as the president brings up, how we shall revitalize our infrastructure and provide healthcare to people who don't have it. I think the general conversation of guns versus butter is in the public conversation.
NNAMDIYeah, but how about this specificity. Let me quote Eisenhower quoted by you. "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." Do we hear language like that today?
O'CONNELLYou cannot. You cannot. That's what's really interesting. If you want to document the change well think about this. Could any American president or lawmaker make an argument like Eisenhower made in that speech? Now he was a five-star general and that inoculated him against criticisms from the right or from the hawkish communities to say you're weakening defense. But the bottom line is it's impossible to make those arguments today because of the disproportionate way that defense spending and narrative -- martial narratives factor into our culture.
NNAMDIYou're a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. Are you inoculated from criticism from the right on this issue?
O'CONNELLI don't know. I received about 600 emails after publishing this piece in the New York Times. And all of them were from military people and civilians. And I only received two or three negative ones. And those that were negative actually came from civilians.
NNAMDIThe book is called "Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corp." Our guest is the author Aaron O'Connell. He is joined by James Dao who is a reporter at the New York Times and coeditor of the NYTimes.com blog "At War." Onto the phones. Here is John in Baltimore, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. What I wanted to comment on, I wanted to put this in light of the recent discussions about gun violence in our nation. American culture, I think, has traditionally been enamored by our military and rightly so given some of the successes that our military has had, you know, in expressing American values. I would like to (sounds like) deposit that violence is in fact an American value, an American value that we have clung to, you know, with a death grip so to speak.
JOHNAnd pardon the pun but any talk of -- you know, when we talk about military style weapons, one of the reasons I think why people are intrigued by military style weapons is because a lot of our culture is intrigued by the military. And any discussion of the idea that we rely on our military so much, not just for military action but for part of our identity, I think makes us by definition a violent culture.
JOHNAnd anybody that might bring that up in a discussion of guns or gun control or any of the recent tragedies is -- you know, like one of your speakers said recently, you know, if you start to -- if people perceive that you are quote "attacking the military establishment" you are immediately shot down. You'll be not a patriot or attacking the troops or, you know, any number of false accusations.
NNAMDIWell, there are two aspects of that question that I'd like to look at, John. The first is that I am old enough to remember that in the wake of the Vietnam War there were harsh criticisms of our military establishment. You point out that that has changed, Aaron. But you also view a lot of this through the lens of the Marine Corps, which has a fascinating history of its own. This is the topic of your books. Modern marines describe themselves as America's 911 force. It's not ranked as the most prestigious military service of the four branches. That was not quite the case right after Vietnam so can you talk a little bit about that evolution?
O'CONNELLCertainly. Yes, the Marine Corps is, you know, the smallest of the four major armed services. But it's a useful lens for seeing how the military operates in American culture because of all the services I think the Marines have done the best job of protecting their image and their interests largely through interventions in our domestic society. So just a few points of comparison, in 1941 they were the least popular service. They were mostly thought of as being quote "rough, rowdy and tough." Parents found them to be the last service they wanted their children to consider.
O'CONNELLOver the last 12 years now in numerous gallop opinion polls they've been ranked the most prestigious service . They've also gotten a good deal more powerful inside the defense establishment. Before World War II they are a subset of the Department of the Navy. They have very little control over their budget. They're just 50,000 men and about 3 percent of the active duty military. Now there are 200,000 men roughly, 14 percent of the military. Their commandant sits on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Indeed we've had Marines who've served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which would've surprised any military leader in World War II.
NNAMDIYou say that role has been carefully cultivated over the decades.
O'CONNELLWell, they've done a number of things. Probably the most interesting ones is their public relations interventions and their congressional lobbying. We know that the military has participated in the film industry for a long time. The first film ever to receive an Academy Award, "Wings," was made with the cooperation of the military. But the Marines took it to another level. Everybody knows that their most famous film I think is "Sands of Iwo Jima." But I challenge you to try to name all the films, television shows and music videos that Marines have appeared in in just the last year. You will have trouble.
NNAMDIWe don't have that much time.
O'CONNELLYou don't have that time. You don't, right. so that's active intervention. And they did the same with Congress. And there's a specific reason for this. Ever since the Marine Corps was created, it has been in a rather precarious place inside the department of the Navy. And the result is they've always felt that they really were under siege and under attack from the other services. And there were indeed abolition attempts against the Marine Corps throughout its history.
O'CONNELLSo the Marines realized early on that they needed to make friends outside the executive branch, not with the president but with the Congress. Not with the Secretary of the Navy but with the American people. And they were very successful in cultivating civilian military alliances to advance their interests. And I think that's really one of the most important points is that when we talk about militarization and the militarian society people naturally turn to asking what the military is doing to advance their reputation.
O'CONNELLBut the more you study it the more you realize that it's civilians who are appropriating narratives about the military and their service often for ulterior motives.
NNAMDIJim Dao, President Obama recently tapped Church Hagel for Secretary of Defense, a Vietnam veteran, first enlisted man to be named for that role. One of the reasons he was taped is because of his views on Pentagon bloat. That has opened him up to a lot of the criticism that we've been discussing. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DAOWell, I think with Hagel, Hagel's interesting for a couple of reasons. One is, as you point out, that he seems prepared to follow through with the Obama Administration's desire to shrink the military and cut out some of the more exorbitant programs. And as an enlisted man he's expected to approach it from the point of view that hey, we don't necessarily need the flashiest most high tech weapons necessarily, although obviously they'll keep a lot of those things. But he may see things a little bit more from the guy on the ground, the infantryman that he was looking to sort of maintain basic programs and equipment for the troops.
DAOHagel's also interesting because he has, for a long time, talked about problems with militarization of foreign policy. I mean, I think he was early on one of the people who was saying the Republican Party should return to its roots of, you know, aggressive and forthright foreign policy and be very cautious about military intervention. And that's a large part of why he's in trouble on Capitol Hill because neoconservatives think, you know, he's an appeaser of places like Iran.
NNAMDIBut you say that President Obama may be counting on the fact that Hagel's feeling about military bloat might not just be the perspective of Democrats.
DAOI mean, I think clearly there are always Democrats who aren't going to want to be cutting the Pentagon budget either. And again, going back to the point that there are so many Pentagon projects spread around the country, I mean, military contractors are being very smart about making sure that they make things in almost every congressional district. So you will have some problems -- he will have some problems in that corner. Although I think at the end of the day most of those Democrats will vote for him.
NNAMDIBut aren't there Republicans who still come in that Eisenhower tradition, so to speak, needing to be modest about overseas ambitions?
DAOI think there are, but I think that they have been, you know, sort of a small or minority voice in their party for the last several years. You clearly have -- interestingly enough, it's sort of the Tea Party influence to some degree. The Rand Pauls who -- well, not so much Rand Paul, but his father perhaps more, that take that older line, kind of avoid intervention where possible, bring the troops home mentality.
NNAMDIRon Paul, yes.
DAORon Paul, I'm sorry. So and there is, I sense, a view among many grassroots Republicans that it's time to reel in the military a bit. That doesn't mean that those voices are the loudest in the Republican Party in Congress, however.
NNAMDIHere is Paul in Alexandria, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULHi. Semper fidelis and all that. My father and grandfather were Marines. Dad's buried in Arlington. I'm a tour guide in D.C. in all the appropriations lobbyists. And I think we're unconsciously decaying into a military police state. And I love our country to death but I just don't -- you know, I really think unconsciously we're becoming far too military and police in our foreign policy and domestic policies.
NNAMDIHere's Aaron O'Connell.
O'CONNELLYeah, thank you for your comments. Semper fi. There's really sort of three legs to this stool that are worth unpacking. One is the money spent on the military. The other is how often we use military solutions and foreign policy. And then third, which we've been spending a bit of time on this morning is the role of the military in our culture and the role of martial narratives in our culture.
O'CONNELLNow on the budget it's really actually quite a confusing story. We now spend less as a percentage of GDP on the military than we did throughout the Cold War, and that's of course appropriate. It's about 5 percent of our GDP is spent on military, which all economists think is more or less sustainable. And this is the first statistic you hear when people want to oppose cuts to the military. That 5 percent of GDP actually equals about 20 percent of all federal spending. Again, more or less sustainable on an economic basis though it should obviously be matched to specific threats.
O'CONNELLThe second of the two legs of the stool I guess is the role of the military in foreign policy. And I think we must all agree that the military is playing a larger and larger role in the conduct of foreign policy and has since World War II. And Eisenhower worried about this. One of the major concerns in his farewell address was not just that we would have too much private profit motive in our defense spending, but that this would warp foreign policy.
O'CONNELLThe third leg of the stool might be one of the ones you were bringing up in your comments, sir, which is that martial narratives seem to be untouchable in our society. And this is what I was getting at with the line that the military's the third rail of American politics. But the solution here is not to rein in the military. I must repeat. It's a very important point to me. I don't believe the military is the most active voice on this front. Yes, the military has public relations, as all institutions do. But I think the bigger reason that the military's a third rail in American politics has to do with other civilian groups who are using narratives of patriotism usually in pursuit of profit.
NNAMDIThis brings me back to you, Jim Dao, and foreign policy. I mentioned Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, enlisted man. President Obama has tapped John Cary, another Vietnam War vet to lead the State Department. What kind of shift, if any, might this mean in terms of foreign policy?
DAOWell, I think -- and I'm not covering it so I'm speculating a little bit here -- but, I mean, clearly there seems to be a desire -- and I think some of this is in the Pentagon itself -- to have a more muscular foreign policy so that, as Aaron was just pointing out, the military isn't conducting diplomacy on the ground with armed forces all the time. Which is a large part of what we've done in Afghanistan for the past decade.
DAOAnd so John Cary, although he obviously is a Vietnam veteran, has really spent much of his time in the Senate focusing on diplomacy more than pure strictly military matters. And there's a sense that he will bring a powerful voice for diplomacy into the inner circle of the White House. And that that will be crucial -- obviously Hillary Clinton did as well -- but that he will maintain her strong status there. And then that will elevate diplomacy perhaps to new levels that it hasn't seen in quite a while since the State Department really has suffered under, you know, budget constrictions for a very long time now.
NNAMDIAnd Aaron O'Connell, you think that the fact that both Hagel and Cary are former military men can make their attempt to, if at all, demilitarize the culture and demilitarize foreign policy more effective?
O'CONNELLI would think so, but I wouldn't underestimate how often cultural narratives can be appropriated by other people for other purposes. And one only has to look at Cary's failed presidential run to see how a war hero was turned into an anti-American, you know, commi-loving hippy. That was done of course by veterans groups but also by political operatives. I think a lot of the ongoing militarization of American culture is a reaction to Vietnam.
O'CONNELLI think that the reason that the media is unflaggingly supportive of the military, even adoring, enamored of -- these are not the kind of words I like applied to me, but they are being applied to the military -- I think it's because we saw our society ripped apart by a mistaken war that lasted for ten years. And as a result many different groups working from good motives said, we can't allow that to happen again.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the military in American culture. If you're called, stay on the line. If you'd like to the number is 800-433-8850. Do you think it's difficult to criticize the military today, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the military in American culture with Aaron O'Connell. He's a professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of "Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corp." He's also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. James Dao is a reporter with the New York Times and coeditor of the NYTimes.com blog "At War." Onto Deepa (sp?) in Rockville, Md. Deepa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEEPAHi. So I am a senior at the University of Maryland and I do a lot of work with our university health center. And something that I'm really interested in is the topic of sexual assault. And sexual assault in the military is something that I've personally tried to learn a lot about over the past semester. But I was wondering -- I know that we've been talking mostly about the impact of the appropriation of cultural narrative on threatening related to the military. I was wondering if your guest could talk a little bit about how this might affect lawmakers or the public's hesitance to criticize some social aspects of the military that might really need some work.
NNAMDISo glad you brought that up because, Jim Dao, while some say positions on social issues are not relevant to leading the Pentagon, the military is in the midst of big policy shifts related to gays in the military. And dare I say I'm sure Deepa would say an epidemic of rape. And Chuck Hagel's record on gay rights and abortion are part of the debate now.
DAOWell, that's right. I don't know that Hagel's record per say is up for close scrutiny. Perhaps it is. I may not be familiar with that part of it. But he certainly has said things that have angered, I know for a fact, gay and lesbian groups because he was critical of the openly gay ambassadorial choice I think years ago. And so he's had to apologize for his comments and backtrack a fair bit. My sense is that a lot of gay rights groups are giving him a pass because they say that was 15 years ago and the whole country has changed a lot. And on top of that he's apologized.
DAOBut it certainly will be an issue at his nomination hearing. And there will be Democrats friendly to the Obama Administration raising sharp questions about whether he will be able to fully implement the integration of openly gay and lesbian troops into the military. Which is an ongoing process and is, you know, still occurring and will be going on, you know, for a long, long time.
NNAMDIAnd on the issue of rape they point out that when he was in the Senate he refused to vote to allow military women to pay for abortions out of their own pockets at military hospitals, presumably because he was anti-abortion, or is.
DAORight. And I don't know where he stands on that issue now, I'm sorry. He may have changed since then. I suspect part of that may have been this sort of local politics that he was dealing with in terms of abortion politics and he felt that he couldn't vote for that sort of spending. But I'm not sure about that.
DAOIn terms of the caller's question about sexual assault, I'm not sure that the issue of the militarization of the popular culture is having much effect on that debate. There seems to be growing momentum, it's my sense anyway, that for the Pentagon to do something to reduce rape there's not much question that the numbers are high and alarming. And I think the question is how far the Congress is willing to go to really push military commanders to crack down on this. And there are certainly -- there's all sorts of proposals that would get into the way that the crime is punished that would be very controversial. But I think there is a broad desire to do something.
NNAMDIDeepa, thank you for your call. On to May in Fairfax, Va. May, you're on the air. go ahead, please.
MAYYes. My question is I'm just curious, the people who are making the ammunitions and the guns, and they're the ones who profit most of all from these wars. Who owns these companies? And they must have made some phenomenal profits the last ten years.
NNAMDIWell, you raise a fascinating question, May, because in "Underdogs" Aaron O'Connell points out that the military industrial complex did not develop in quite the way that Eisenhower thought it would, and that is by industry dominating the direction that the military would take. Could you talk a little bit about that?
O'CONNELLYes. You ask an excellent question and I'm sorry I don't know the answer. I'd be very interested to know what the actual profits are of major arms manufacturers in this country. I assume that that is public information. I bet it's also not that easy to track down. But one of the points I was making in the op-ed is that Eisenhower was mostly concerned with modern industry, which is to say materiel, tanks and guns and ships and tanks.
O'CONNELLWhat we have today is rather a post modern industry. We have a media industrial complex. So one place where a lot of money is being made off the military is in the film industry. So many of these films could not possibly tell the story they want to tell without active cooperation of the military. No doubt many of your listeners have seen "Top Gun," "The Hunt for Red October." You know, one could go on from there to name a number of other films that are made with the active cooperation of the military.
O'CONNELLNow this is, in a sense, win/win, the military gets some free publicity, mostly of their machines which is interesting. And the filmmaker gets to make an exciting picture. But what it does is it glamorizes weapons of war. And I'll tell you Eisenhower hated this. The day after his farewell address he was explaining to reporters what he meant. And he said, when I look in your magazines and I see pictures, every single page as a picture of an Atlas missiles or a Titan missile or a solid-fueled rocket, there is becoming an insidious penetration of our minds that all this country is engaged in is weaponry and warfare. And I think that's a warning we're all listening to today.
NNAMDIMay, thank you very much for your call. And now Neil in Silver Spring, Md., your turn.
NEILHi, Kojo. I'll try to be real brief because I see we're running out of time. Estimates are that we've spend 2 to $4 trillion on this war on terror. Some military people I've talked to estimate that at best, at most we've killed 10,000 real al-Qaida. That comes to a whopping 200 million to $400 million per individual that we have killed. That's number one. I have two more points.
NNAMDIWell, let me have Jim Dao deal with number one because, Jim, we're talking about President Obama announcing an accelerated timetable for Afghan forces stepping up while American forces step down. With major budget issues looming and draw-downs in both Iraq and Afghanistan, would you say the military is at a crossroads? And that people like Neil are likely to see a significant reduction in military spending?
DAOWell, military spending will definitely come down once we're fully out of Afghanistan because it costs a whole lot of money to just keep the -- even a small number of troops there. They need food and logistical support and all kinds of things to keep the war effort going. But it may not come down automatically as easily as people think because so much of the military's just a big infrastructure that goes on and on. And without active work by Congress to trim things it's not necessarily going to trim itself.
DAOSo -- and the other big cost that looms out there is just the personnel and health care costs for the military and for veterans. And troops may be coming home but they're coming home injured. They will get disability compensation. They will need health care. And the costs of that are huge. So there -- clearly the savings will require some hard work - and this is what Aaron is getting at -- at reshaping the military to some degree. You have to make conscious choices to focus on certain things and cut others. And that is going to be a hard job.
NNAMDIAnd finally we got a comment posted on our website by Andra. "I think that the perceived inability to cut defense spending is more a Washington circle belief than a general consensus of the nation." What say you, Aaron?
O'CONNELLThat sounds right to me. I think when you talk to most people and you ask them, do you feel basically safe? Do you think that the United States should account for roughly half of all military spending in the world each year, most people say no. We don't have a peer competitor like the Soviet Union right now. We don't have millions of nuclear weapons aimed at each other. So I think most people who have any sort of modicum of common sense think that they're basically safe in America today and that there might be room to change some of the civil military spending balance.
O'CONNELLBut I agree that once it gets into Washington, D.C., particularly when you have defense industries that have diversified their production all over into specific congressional districts, it's very hard to challenge that.
NNAMDIIn the early 1990s, we talked about a peace dividend. We'll see what we're talking about in 2013. Aaron O'Connell is a professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of "Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corp." He's also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. Aaron O'Connell, thank you for joining us.
O'CONNELLThank you so much. It was my pleasure.
NNAMDIJames Dao is a reporter with the New York Times and coeditor of the NYTimes.com blog "At War." Jim Dao, thank you for joining us.
DAOThank you. Great to be on.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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Gunmen launched an attack in Mali's capital on Friday. We explore the conditions that continue to fuel extremism in West Africa and the challenges of combating them.